Let me begin by saying that I think films and books are two quite different media, and they are good at different things, so it makes sense that a film of a book will be different from that book. I am also not a Tolkein purist. I really enjoyed “The Lord of the Rings” films, and I understood some of the changes that Peter Jackson made in order to make them more effective on film–like underscoring minor antagonists and enhancing smaller conflicts to carry on the tension when the major antagonist was mostly working at a great distance. He had a hard task in compressing three dense and detailed books into exciting action films, and some amount of elvish poetry and fun characters who did not advance the plot had to go.
So perhaps my fury with Jackson’s approach to The Hobbit is all the greater, because I formerly had great respect for his work. And now he’s gone and created the monstrosity that is “The Desolation of Smaug.” Those of you who have read my entry on Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe will know that I went into these films with some trepidation as the signs suggested his handling of the film would not be as deft and detail-oriented as it was with LOTR. When the rumor first surfaced that he would make 3 films, I thought the plan was to make two from The Hobbit, and another that bridged the gap. So the way the current film ends was, to say the least, a disappointment. But the ending was a blessed relief compared with what came before it.
Instead of a delightful journey through the countryside featuring dour dwarves and a plucky hobbit, we are given orcish raids and elves kicking butt. We are given ridiculous chase scenes and unbelievable dwarven mines. We are given romance, bird shit, and Gandalf behaving foolishly. We are given noble reasons to deflect the greed that underlies the story, and exposition from the mouth of Smaug himself. We are given an enormous amount of screen-time devoted to things far outside the sphere of the book. At least the alterations to LOTR mostly came from material already present. “Desolation” throws in so much crap that it starts to resemble Radagast’s hat. At one point during the dreadful inanity of the barrel-riding scene, the action so looked like a video game that I found myself thinking we’d unlocked another level–and should it be an ape throwing those barrels? Gaah!
But what makes me both furious and sad are all of the wonderful and thought-provoking things in Tolkein’s work that Jackson left behind. Gandalf’s faith in the dwarves and the hobbit. Instead of wishing them well at the edge of Mirkwood, he is called away on an urgent mission. Bilbo’s clever use of taunting and the ring to get his chance to free the dwarves, not to mention his leadership while they are still woozy–and the fact that they knowingly sought the elf fires, sending themselves into danger to escape the danger they were already in. His lonely search in the Elf-king’s halls to find a way to free his friends. The fact that he chooses the Arkenstone, knowing that it’s not something Thorin would give up, and ruining their friendship at the cost of greed, despite the fact that he later uses it to the noble end of bringing some of the combatants together. The Hobbit is a work rife with interpersonal, and inner conflicts, with moral choices and vast consequences.
And this is really the trouble. So many of the changes undercut the reasons we care about the characters. They undercut the themes that Tolkein worked with. They turn the dwarves into buffoons who must be rescued by the elves over and over again, stealing the silver tongue of Thorin and the quick wit of Bilbo. They give us less reason to root for these people, to worry for them, to feel proud for them as they struggle and grow. Not only did Jackson give this work an identity crisis by fusing it together with disproportionate heaps of absurdity and darkness, he gutted what it had been before.
I, for one, will not pay to watch the third film in this sequence. I am sorry I gave my time and money to see this one. If I had read this version as a manuscript to critique, I would ask the scribe what was the heart of the work–for it seems, sadly, to have none.